It's an island with marvelous history, great charm, local mysteries and incredible beauty. It is the seat of government of the Netherlands Antilles, an autonomous part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, has been designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO -- one of only six in the Caribbean. It is a lovely colonial-style Dutch village; Dutch architecture has been a mainstay of construction on Curacao since the 17th century. Today, more than 160,000 people from 55 different cultures reside on the island.
Papiamentu, a Creole dialect prominent on all the Dutch islands, is the native language on Curacao -- although English is spoken everywhere. Papiamentu is probably based on a Portuguese "lingua franca" and contains elements of Spanish, English and Dutch. The word comes from the old Spanish word "papear" which means talking. Among the phrases you'll hear (or use) are:
Bon bini! Welcome! Bon dia. Good morning Dushi. Sweetie Dani, shon. Thank you Kuantu e ta kosta? What does it cost?
Ships offer myriad shore excursions at Curacao, including trips to a colonial home or "Landhuis," museum visits, underwater animal encounters and kayaking. Prices range from $29 per person for a trolley tour to $89 for the animal encounter. Be sure to read the description and decide which is physically appropriate for you. Tours are also offered at the port by local operators - bike tours, walking tours, etc.
TAKE A WALK
Ships dock in Willemstad, Curacao's capital, and it's a short walk to anywhere in the downtown area. Check out the picture-postcard, pastel-hued buildings. Continue strolling to the outstanding Kura Hulanda museum, which opened in 1999, and stop to watch the always-interesting Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge swing open and shut more than 30 times a day. The canal spanned by the bridge separates Punda, where shops and restaurants abound, from Otrobanda, or "other side" -- originally home to the town's undesirables: criminals and those who were ill.
All the major players are represented: www.budget.com, click on Caribbean and Willemstad in Curacao, 5999-8678-3466; or choose locally, Mario, 5999-560-2235.
Taxis bear signs indicating what they are, and taxi license plates carry the letters TX. Prices are based for one to four people from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. A fifth person adds 25 percent. After 11 p.m., add another 25 percent. Agree on price before getting into the car. 5999-869-0747.
Among the exotica available on Curacao are Dutch wooden shoes; carvings and art from Haiti and the Dominican Republic; hammocks; and hand-embroidered goods. Liquor and fragrance are good values as are hand-painted tiles and replicas of Curacao buildings.
The Floating Market is where Venezuelan vessels tie up and sell everything from tropical fruit to handicrafts. This is an excellent place to bargain.
The Curacao Liqueur Distillery, in a 17th-century landhuis, is where the famous Curacao drink is made. There are complimentary tastings at Landhuis Chobolobo, off Caracasbaal Weg., 5999-461-3526. It makes a tasty take-home treat.
KFC, Domino's and Pizza Hut, Subway and McDonald's are all represented if you absolutely crave a taste of fast food from home. But this is an international island, so try something new.
A 10 percent service charge is added to each bill, plus a 5 percent sales tax. Leave an additional tip only if you feel it is warranted.
Rijsttafel Restaurant Indonesia is a favorite with return visitors and locals alike, offering a variety of recipes from Indonesia and spices to warm your heart. The Rice Table is a literal translation; it is a buffet of some two dozen delicacies. Mercuriusstrat 13, 5999 461-2606. No shorts or sandals. Seru Domi at Fort Waakzaamheid, in the hills above Otrabanda, offers memorable food, 5999-462-3633. Scampis (5999-465-0768) and Across the Border (5999-465-1466) are located in Waterfort Arches. Also check out Plein Café Wilhelmina, Wilhelminaplein 19, Punda, 5999-461-9666, email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit one of about a dozen Colonial Houses (called landhuizen), each with a special story, legend, or ghost tale. A favorite is Landhuis Jan Kok with its tale of an ill-fated love affair and ghosts that remain to this day. While it is now a private home, ask the tourist office if they can arrange for you to visit. Many landhuizen also offer restaurants or coffee shops.
Millions of Africans died while in transit from their homes. Curacao was a main stop on the slave trail from Africa, and the Kura Hulanda Museum documents much of the history. See a recreated, full-size slave ship. Some outstanding examples of African art are also on display. Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $6 US for adults, $3 for children under 12, www.kurahulanda.com or call 5999-462-1400. There's a coffee shop on the premises.
The caves of Hato offer something not found on most islands, a chance to see 1,500-year-old Indian petroglyphs and stalagmites and stalactites. F.D. Rooseveltweg.
Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue is the oldest continually operating synagogue in the western hemisphere. Between Columbusstraat and Middenstraat.
More than 30 beautiful white sand beaches - many with secluded coves -- dot the island's beautiful southwest coast. The northern coast is not suitable for swimming. The more popular beaches include Mambo, Porto Marie, Santa Barbara, Jan Thiel, and Hooks Hut.
Blue Bay Golf Club, the island's first course, features greens made of tightly packed sand. Fairways and tees are a strain of hearty grass. www.bluebaygolf.com.
Christoffelspark, 5999 864-5535, has everything for a perfect day - including horseback riding. Thousands of acres contain the ruins of Landhuis Zorgvilet, an outbuilding of Landhuis Savonet and the highest point in the Netherlands Antilles. It's an ideal place to let the kids run free. There are cave excursions, moon walks, bird and animal shows; guided deer watching is offered from 4-6:30 p.m., Christoffelberg. Buses leave from downtown.
Pick a secluded beach, then opt for lunch at Old Vienna Terrace Cafe where you can watch the ships and savor a taste of Europe, South America and the Caribbean. Handelskade 6C, Punda, 5999-563-1142, email email@example.com.
For more information on Curacao, call 1-800-3CURACAO or visit www.curacao-tourism.com. On the island, visit the office of the Curacao Tourist Board at Pietermaai 19, or the Curacao Government Office, Concordia Street 24.